Fasting used to be done primarily for religious purposes. Today, most of those who voluntarily abstain from eating want to improve their health or to lose weight, with little thought given to fasting as a spiritual practice.
In Isaiah’s day, people practiced fasting in an attempt to get God’s attention and enlist His aid. They became frustrated when God seemed to ignore their efforts: “‘Why have we fasted,’ they say, ‘and you have not seen it? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you have not noticed?’” (v. 3).
The Lord’s reply revealed the flaw. They were regular in their religious activity but superficial in their devotion. On the surface they appeared sincere. They sought God daily and even seemed eager to know about Him. But on closer inspection, their lives showed serious inconsistencies. Their religious practices were mixed with acts of selfishness, exploitation of others, and quarreling. Like a church member who thanks the pastor for the sermon on loving your neighbor and then gossips about a friend on the way out, their ordinary behavior proved that these spiritual practices were only a religious veneer.
The word for this kind of behavior is hypocrisy. The trouble with hypocrisy is that we have a sharper eye for it in others than we do for ourselves. We think others are hypocrites; we are merely inconsistent. The flaw in those Isaiah criticized was twofold. First, they thought they could use their acts of devotion as leverage to get God to do what they wanted. Second, their practice of spirituality was compartmentalized. Jesus echoed Isaiah’s criticism when He rebuked the religious leaders of His day for attending to minor details while ignoring the heart of holy living (Matt. 23:23).
Hypocrisy is difficult to diagnose for ourselves. Is there a trusted friend who can tell you about your own inconsistencies? Ask them to identify something that they think is most dangerous to you. Their assessment will be hard to hear but can help you grow spiritually and align your heart more with Christ.